After eight months of back-breaking work, the American military engineers helping Egypt build a steel anti-smuggling wall along the strategic Philadelphi Route dividing Gaza from Sinai were suddenly recalled, debkafile's military sources report – signaling the collapse of Egypt's blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Washington thus abandoned its half-a-billion dollar investment in the joint Egyptian-Israeli siege project.
Also Wednesday, June 9, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu again dispersed his inner cabinet without a decision after three days of chewing over various formats for an impartial probe of Israel's commando raid of the Turkish-led blockade-busting flotilla of May 31.
Washington's insistence on attaching international "teeth" – and not just American observers – to the probe has stalled Israel's acceptance. debkafile's political sources report that for Netanyahu as well as the defense minister Ehud Barak who ordered and scripted the raid, acceptance of a broad international inquiry as demanded by the UN secretary general and Turkey would be suicidal in domestic political terms.
Even full status for American panel members would for the first time give Washington a say in determining the political fate of the witnesses called, i.e. Netanyahu and Barak, first and foremost.
What US president Barack Obama did this week was to go back to his confrontational posture against the Israeli prime minister, at the very moment that Israeli leaders had their backs to the wall against a worldwide onslaught over the flotilla incident orchestrated from Ankara and Tehran.
Washington has now set its face on a new track: salvaging its ties with Turkey by burning the Netanyahu government. Gone is the well-publicized conciliatory rhetoric from the president, the vice president, secretary of state and chief of staff (who brought his son to Jerusalem for his bar mitzvah) of the past few weeks.
In the absence of an Israeli demand to focus the inquiry on Ankara's "aid" flotilla project, it will not be hard to single out the culprits for taking the rap – Netanyahu as prime minister and therefore ultimately responsible, and his Defense Minister Barak, the solo performer.
Barak asked no one before ordering chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi and the generals to go ahead with the raid of the six-vessel flotilla, after no more than a cursory word with the prime minister who was then visiting Canada. He did not put members of the security-political cabinet in the picture, or even Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon who was standing in for Netanyahu.
All the same, none of the ministers are in a hurry to endorse a probe that might fatally destabilize the government they serve. debkafile's Washington sources report that Obama administration is also delaying a decision in order to punish Netanyahu and please Erdogan. He also hopes to use the controversy over the inquiry as a lever to free Hamas (which is incidentally listed by the US as a terror group) of the Israeli blockade.
Washington has already made its first move to that end by recalling the US army engineers building Egypt's siege wall during Vice President Joe Biden's talks with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at Sharm el Sheikh and meetings with officials in Cairo Tuesday and Wednesday, June 8-9.
Reporting to the Vice President, the American engineers' commanders and their Egyptian military colleagues painted a bleak picture of the troubles dogging their efforts to building a steel wall for blocking the arms-smuggling tunnels into Gaza. They reported they had thwarted at every turn by amas engineers, actively assisted by Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah experts, who had managed to infiltrate the Gaza Strip through the contraband tunnels. Hamas buried giant burners 18 meters below the surface of the sand to melt the steel wall's foundations; its operatives then made off with the steel plates and used them to build their own fortifications.
During his talks in Cairo, Biden decided to give up on that project as well as another in the planning stage: A huge pump and pipeline for flooding the tunnels with Mediterranean water. The Vice president and Egyptian officials ended up discussing re-opening the Gaza crossings for people and goods and using European and Egyptian monitors to filter out weapons and terrorists from shore stations.
debkafile's military sources report this plan harks back to the failed arrangements brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and which never worked. The European monitors fled their posts after Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups started shooting at them. The situation now is even more dangerous, because foreign monitors would have to contend additionally with the new al Qaeda cells which have since sprung up in the southern Gaza Strip.
What Biden is proposing now is to virtually abandon US and Egyptian attempts to block the arms smuggling tunnels altogether – a proposal, debkafile's military sources predict, will bring to an end the Israel-Egyptian blockade of Gaza and allow Hamas to resume its unfettered arms imports through those tunnels.
In those circumstances, the pressure on Israel to end its sea blockade will be unrelenting. The Netanyahu government may have no option but to compromise by agreeing to let cargo ships, including Iranian vessels, through, with European monitors stationed on Gaza's shore to inspect incoming freights.
As recently as Sunday, Netanyahu vowed not to allow an Iranian port to be established in the Gaza Strip. By Wednesday, he looked as though he would have to eat his words.